Saturday, 17 April 2010

Day 10 - Prüm to Reading

The bike was covered in thick frost when I went to stow my gear before breakfast. It was 07:00 and -2 degrees. I went for breakfast at 07:15 and had the usual cereals, bread, cheese and coffee. I used the mozzarella and tomato with a seeded brown roll to make a packed lunch, taking a banana, too, for something to eat in the tunnel. I set off at 07:45 in the chilly weather. It was a nice, compact and thriving town. They even have a Yamaha dealer as well as all the other usual shops, like agricultural supplies. I passed an interesting looking sculpture park. That might be worth checking out for a return trip. I could see from the smoking chimneys of Prüm that there was next to no wind. The sun was up and not a cloud in the sky.

The road was not an autobahn, and mostly single carriageway so not particularly fast. I said cheerio to yesterday's high speed, and enjoyed this traffic-free route via Malmedy and Liege. As the man at Mosel suggested at the end of my first day, this was much the better route. The journey was perfectly uneventful and I got to the tunnel three hours ahead of schedule. I was happy to be on the final stretch home, and enjoyed my picnic on the train.

The run from Dover to Reading was dull, being back on British motorways, but at least the motorways were not too congested. The satnav could not get any satellite reception pointing straight up, and I wondered if that was a consequence of the volcano cloud up in the jet stream. Certainly, it was OK pointing lower, towards the horizon. But it might have been a coincidence. There is not a cloud in the sky here, and the sun is shining, and I am properly warm for the first time since the day I arrived at Motovun. I was surprised how slow the urban traffic was compared to all the places I'd been. Having arrived home, at 14:10, here are the statistics of the trip: I covered 2,293 miles (3,696 km) with a maximum speed of 140 mph (225 kph), an average speed of 60 mph (96 kph) in 38 hours and 24 minutes of riding. Hmmm, I could have done it in a day and half if I didn't need to sleep or eat! I wonder where to go next time...

Friday, 16 April 2010

Day 9 - Ettlingen to Prüm

The ultimate purpose of this long journey was to meet Frank Schultmann and Andy Dainty in Ettlingen.  I added a few days before the meeting in order to make a trip to Motovun.  And just as I was on the way here yesterday for the meeting, I started getting text messages to tell me that because of a volcano eruption in Iceland, Andy was unable to fly to Germany for our meeting.  A bit ironic, because we ended up with Frank and me in his office connected to Andy via Skype!  But we managed to deal with all we needed to deal with, and then Frank and I went to lunch with one of Frank's colleagues.  We went to a Bavarian style restaurant in Karlsruhe, which was very interesting!

I had checked out of the hotel in the morning, after breakfast, so when Frank dropped me back, all I had to do was get my gear on and hit the road.  It was 14:30 and I had 308km to cover, about 3 hours of riding.  I was soon on the A5 again, headed northeast to the A6 which was more in the right direction, to the west.  There were copious roadworks again, in between blasts of speed, but it was not possible to get much speed up because of the Friday afternoon traffic, which was heavier than usual.  However, when I turned on to the A62, I found an autobahn that ran across hilltops, with loads of bends and bridges, almost no traffic, and mile after mile of unrestricted speed!  It was awesome opening up the bike across here.  There was loads of empty road, and I had learned to keep the windscreen lowered, and crouch down over the tank, which put more weight over the front wheel. Perhaps the lowered windshield provided a better aerodynamic as well, but it meant that I did not suffer from the bike weaving at top speed, and I was able to maintain 130mph plus or minus 10 for long stretches, except when there was a proper speed limit on occasional stretches that had slow moving traffic.  One interesting thing was slowing down on bridges that sprang across impossibly wide valleys at high altitude; slowing down for crosswinds, rather than for traffic.  Some of the bends had good visibility and smooth enough surfaces to take them at 120 mph.  And on the straights I was touching 140 mph frequently.  This was the longest sustained high speed I had done in one go, and I made the most of it, because it will be a long time before I get another chance to do this.

I arrived in Prüm at 17:30 as the satnav predicted, and it found the parking around the back, for which they gave me a key to raise the barrier.  I got internet passwords, and when they told me breakfast was 08:00 to 10:00, I grimaced, and they offered me 07:15 instead, which will enable me to get an earlyish start for a long run tomorrow, 638 km and about 8 hours - quite a run, but the channel tunnel will give me rest as i cross to England.  I must say, I am really looking forward to getting home again after all this!

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Day 8 - Matrei to Ettlingen

Today was another 630km marathon. I set off from Matrei after a nice light breakfast with Olivia to chat to.  Despite the beer last night, she was up being conversational and friendly.  She got me some coffee and made sure I had everything I wanted.  The bread was made by her mother, and was very fresh.It was clear after all our talking that this was not a good place to be young.  It must be very frustrating living here.  After breakfast, I managed contribute to last night's beer and eggs and settled up.  Then I stowed everything on to the bike and wished my hosts all the best, promising to back with the family next time we are passing this way.  I had a lot of road to cover and was keen to get on.  After five or ten minutes riding through Matrei, I got to the main road and felt the power of the bike as it surged up the hills and made overtakes simple.

Lienz was slow again, going through endless road junctions with badly-phased lights.  Once I got through Lienz, the road was more fun, with nice bends and plenty of opportunities for easy overtakes.  The traffic became heavier and slower, and the route to the motorway was already familiar to me, but it was easier to see the other views in this direction, that I was craning my neck to see on the way down.  I was headed for Kufstein, and thinking that this was a bad road to choose.  Next time, I must avoid this.  It went through a lovely valley, with town after town, but as a result, the speed limits were urban, and the traffic was difficult.  but once I made the motorway, it was easier, and after crossing the border into Germany I was once more able to open up the bike for the unrestricted stretches of the autobahn.  There were many places were I could cruise along safely at speeds well over 100 mph, occasionally nudging 130.

I passed by Hotel Amroesel in Flintsbach am Inn, and remembered what a nice relaxing time I'd had there, walking up the hill and meeting the bouldering boy.  Then the traffic slowed to a halt and I filtered slowly between the lorries on the right and the cars on the left, perfectly segregated.  Some cars were across the lanes in their queuing, but the soon moved out the way when they saw me.  The motorway ahead was completely closed, for no apparent reason, and we were sent into the rural hinterland with no hint as to which direction, so I just followed a big truck, assuming he would be looking for the best route to the next junction.  He was.  After crossing the Inn, the route passsed through many villages, such as Nussdorf, and through a really attractive town with lots of old architecture on a hill, Neubeuern.  Soon after that, we joined the A8 to Munich, which is what I was headed for all along, and the detour was over, thankfully (overtakes were not possible with such slow roads and heacy traffic).  So, occasional bursts of speed again, interspersed with crawling at 80 kph through the extensive road works that seem to go on for ever.

I was getting really cold by now, and stopped near Munich to get warm and have a coffee.  I was amazed to find seven text messages that had come in while I was riding.  Andy, whom I was meeting in Karlsruhe with Frank, was not able to get here after all because all flights were cancelled due to volcanic ash in the air!  Apparently, something in Iceland is spewing ash into the air and it is dangerous to fly through it.  The irony was immense, since the meeting between the three of us was why I was making this journey in the first place.  Ah well, I was having a good break from work, and there was still a ton of stuff that Frank and I can discuss.  Plus, we can get Andy on Skype to join in.  Having warmed up in the shop at the services, I went back to my bike to get some of the food left over from last night, and nodded at another biker, on a Hayabusa, who had just rolled up.  With his cigarette smoke drifting my way, he came and joined me on the bench, and we exchanged travel stories and so on.  He had jsut set off and was on his way to somewhere 500 km north of here to see his girlfriend.  He drives this road (A8) 2-3 times a week for his job, a truck driver.  Then it turned out that his main job was a policemen, working in the despatch room, handling emergency calls.  He's been diving in Rovinj, not far from Motovun, and planned to go to Scapa Flow in Orkney, where I once went for a holiday, so was had plenty to talk about.  he had one more cigarette, then went on his way, and I had another espresso and went on my way, blasting along the unrestricted sections of autobahn whenever the opportunity arose.

As I got closer to Karlsruhe, I was nearly worried about being late to meet Frank, but I texted him to tell him that I would not be there until at least 17:30, so that I could add one and a half hours to my journey by taking a detour to have another play on Schwarzwoldhochstrasse, the B500 from Freudenstadt to Baden-Baden.  This time it was much clearer and although there were stretches with snow lying either side of the road, the temperature was well above zero, and the views across the Rhine Valley that I glimpsed were stunning.  There were stretches where I had to take it easy because of mud on the road, but most of the 24 miles of high speed bends and gradients were even more awesome than last time, with the weather being better.  Look at that bend in the picture, right at the beginning of the run.  Long, clear and fast.  They're mostly like that.  Later that evening, Frank told me that on some summer weekends, the route gets very popular with bikers, many of whom kill themselves on the bends.  To avoid too many casualties, the road is simply closed on saturdays and Sundays.  That would have been frustrating for anyone who drove a long way to see it.

I made the hotel in Ettlingen, a suburb of Karlsruhe bank on time at 17:15.  As I was checking in, Frank turned up too.  I parked the bike in their underground carpark, sorted myself out, and then walked to his house with him, less than a kilometre away.  Xenia had prepared us a wonderful dinner, and the house was more like mansion!  They had designed it themselves and it was a really spacious, attractive house with masses of space and loads of rooms.  The view across the Rhine valley was pretty special.  After dinner, Frank and I went to a pub in Ettlingen, Vogel, where they brewed their own beer.  Good stuff, too!  This had been an excellent end to a day that started of OK, but just kept getting better!

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Day 7 - Motovun to Matrei

It was raining at the start of the day, and I spent the first hour on emails and reviewing a conference paper. By the time I'd had some breakfast and packed my stuff, Ranko was up and we went to the Hotel Kastel for a final coffee. We chatted about this and that, and I noted that there was almost no one around on the streets, and we returned to the house. I stowed my gear on the bike, manoevered it out from the space between the houses, and with the rain now dried up, I was off on the road again, headed North. The wet roads made me a lot more cautious about my speed, and I was approaching bends very cautioualy indeed. I knew the route home by now, or so I thought. At the boundary with Slovenia, I showed them my passport, but they did nto ask me to remove my helmet, just checked the validity of the passport. At the Slovenian border, 2.5 km further on, they waved me through, as I slowed. Somewhere between Gračišće and Crni Kal, I missed a right hand turn towards Ljubljana, and after ten minutes realised I was off track, so turned round and found the right road. I soon made it to the Italian border, and apart from some road works, it was all very straightforward.

I stopped for petrol and a snack at lunch time, then pressed on, making the winding roads up to Plöckenpass within an hour, to play on some of my favourite hair-pin bends.  But it was a bit wet after the rain, and still a bit of drizzle. Worse, the temperature hovered between -1 and 1 so I was worried about how the tyres would grip on this surface, so I rode up the roads like a novice, going in slow, and not accelerating too much out of the bends.  The last thing I wanted to do up here was drop the bike on a sharp bend.  Coming down the other side of the mountains, the roads were easier, as the temperature was a little higher, but it was awfully cold all the same.  I was thankful for the heated handlebar grips, and I worked out that I was quite comfortable around 7 degrees, but chilly below that, and when it was around zero, I really felt it.  However, it was not too cold to keep going!  The occasional light showers continued, so the road was not suitable for pushing hard into the bends, and every so often there was a bus or a lorry coming around the corner from the other direction occupying the whole road. I was glad not to be in a car!

Finally, at about 15:30, bang on schedule, I arrived at the guest house in Matrei-in-Osttirrol, the Ruggenthalerhof. I was welcomed in English by Olivia, who introduced me to her 5 year-old neice and the two of them showed my to my room, where her mum, Anna, was just finishing making it ready. It was a nice big room, with soafe, table and chairs, a balcony and so on. It felt more like a suite. They told me when breakfast was, and I asked about dinner. Apparently, there was a pizzeria open in Matrei, but probably nothing else, and there were a couple of other places to go. I decided to jump back on the bike and visit the Spar shop near the main road about 5 km back, from where I got some things that I could eat and drink in the room. When I got back, Olivia asked if I wanted some coffee, and I was quick to accept. I chucked my shopping in the room, as well as the bike gear, and joined her and Amelie in the breakfast room, where she made me a coffee, and practiced her English with me. After the coffee, she offered me a beer, and she joined me, and we continued to chat. Anna joined us, and we talked about all sorts of things. They got out some Schnapps made in this valley, and I tried two types, the first one was a bit too primitive, Williams Birne (Pear Schnapps) and the second one was very nice, which was made with Apples and Pears.  Anna pointed out to me that the Preglet label on this one was a protected trade mark, and only Schnapps made in this locality could bear this label.  I was not sure about which one was made by Anna's uncle, but at least one of them was.  Then Anna surprised me by offering me something to eat. She prepared some fried eggs on toast for me. I wasn't sure if I should have been embarrassed, because they didn't eat, since it was now too late for them to be eating. After this, Olivia and I compared our favourite music by playing each other the first 10-15 seconds of songs on our phones and we chatted about movies as well, until about 9:30, then that was the end of the evening. I was struck by her enthusiasm for all sorts of things and the lack of social opportunity in a remote place like this.  She was clearly wishing for a more interesting social life and, perhaps, sense of purpose. But she seemed stuck in a lifestyle that she would not have chosen. I guessed that this was how life was for large numbers of young people in similar situations.

It was a remarkable evening, all told, and I really felt like one of the family, having also met her brother and her uncle while we were there. Looking at the stuff I bought from the supermarket, I decided that this would make a good lunch tomorrow, instead!

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Day 6 - Motovun

The last full day if my stay was a rainy day. We were confined to the house in the morning and went to the Pizzeria for a salad at lunchtime. Having checked out my phrase nook, I was able to greet Mishko with "Užasno vrijme, zar ne?", to which he responded, "ne". (The weather's bad, isn't it? No!) Mishko, who prepared the food, joined us for a chat while we ate. It was interesting observing that the banter between tables and betwern staff and customers alike probably wouldn't happen in England.

After lunch we returned to the house, drank a bit, emailed a bit, chatted a bit and nibbled some seriously good cheese. The weather cleared up, so we had a stroll around the city walls and chatted to everyone we met. Then to Benjamin's for dinner, risotto with truffles. After dinner we were fortunate enough to be invited to sit at the back of the Italian Community Hall while the local group of a capella singers (Klapa Motovun) rehearsed. Eight of them, sounding like 20, with beautiful voices singing four-part harmony. It was a mixture of traditional and modern pieces sung with tremendous skill, conducted by a young musician who was clearly very talented and lead by Tomitsa, a very powerful and passionate tenor. The sound was extremely good. They were clearly proficient, experienced and very well-matched to each other, socially as well as musically. It was a rare thrill to observe their skills and the good-natured banter between them. Their pleasure in singing was very uplifting.

This traditional style of singing is not from this region, but Dalmatia and they sang local songs, some Russian, merging with a more modern "pop" idiom. The tradition in this region is quite different, and probably nowhere near as popular or of such instant appeal as this.

Afterwards we went for more drinks in the Pizzeria bar and regaled each other with various tales about languages and travelling. I'd been able to say farewell to Lubici, Yvonna, Eike and Mishko. Once more, and more than before, I was going to miss these people. Then Rank and I returned to the house and chatted about writers like Pamuk, Eco, Dostoevsky, Borges and so on, as well as great movies like Once Upon a Time in the West, Apocalypse Now, Sin City and a load of others. This kept is going until way too late. But I shall not be in a tearing hurry tomorrow...

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Day 3 - Rosenheim to Motovun

The hotel in Flintsbach am Inn had turned out fine, despite the initial formality of my reception. I only saw one other person there during my stay. The young lady who was on reception, served the meal, the drinks, dealt with the music, did the breakfast the following day, and the check-out. But there was evidence of at least 8 other guests staying, judging by the places set for breakfast, each table with the room numbers labelled and the specific number of place settings depending on which room it was. She said that some guests were quiet and that was that.
The breakfast was good, fresh bread and so on, and I took an apple and a banana for a snack later in the day. I set off at 08:30, slightly later than anticipated, but I only had 430 km to do today, unlike yesterday's big push of 670 km. I expected to arrive in Motovun at about 15:00, but was not sure about the satnav's estimate of my time because it didn't contain the maps for Slovenia and Croatia. So I texted Ranko to tell him to expect me at 17:00, and this would give me a margin of error in case of two things. First I might get lost, second I wanted time to enjoy the alps.

As I left Flintsbach behind me, I was straight on to the autobahn again, with the river Inn alongside me, marking the boundary between Austria and Germany. It was strange looking to the left and to the right seeing farms, small towns and churches, all in the same style and arranged consistently, yet to the left was Austria and to the right was Germany. If it were not for a map, I would have no idea that I was looking at two different countries as I rode along this valley. After a few miles, the road crossed the river, and I had to stop at what used to be a national boundary and buy a special vignette that is supposed to be some kind of road toll for using highways. The charge for a 10-day motorcycle vignette is 4.5 Euros. It was a bit annoying that the last two times I had been through Austria, despite being dressed in bike gear and carrying a helmet, they had sold me a car vignette for twice the price. This time, I'd specifically asked for a motorbike vignette. Since I'd stopped anyway, I decided to fill up the fuel tank as well, and then I was on my way once more, into Austria, headed towards Lienz (not Linz, which is what people here assume I am trying to say every time I mention Lienz, which is in Tyrol). I have stayed at Lienz a couple of times before, and really liked it there because it is so close to the alps. As I progressed, the hills were getting higher, the mountains of the alps were more visible, and air was clean and fresh. The sun was shining and the temperature was dropping as I gained altitude. I suddenly remembered that I had chosen ths route to pass through Matrei-in-Ostirrol, because I have booked my first night there on my return trip. It was a good choice, because this is an incredibly beautiful valley. But I was enjoying the roads too much to stop and take pictures. I did stop a little later as the skies clouded over and the temperature dropped. I saw a good lay-by and pulled over. It was just beginning to snow and the temperature was down to 4°C. I felt a real chill off the bike, being exposed to the cold wind. It made me realize how protective the fairing and screen on the bike really were. I took a picture of the scenery, bike in foreground, and was keen to get back on the bike, to be a bit more protected from the elements.

The road was going through awesome scenery as the elevation increased, until I came across the Felbertauern tunnel after some nice fast riding. This is a 5.3km tunnel that gets through some big mountains. I entered it making a mental note that the speed limit was 80 kph, and as I accelerated into it, I kept glancing at the speed display on the satnav, which indicated about 54 kph. I accelerated to 80 mph before I remembered that the satnav didn't get a signal in the tunnel, and I sheepishly slowed to the proper speed. The tunnel finished with a dangeroud sharp left hand bend, but there are plenty of warnings to slow to 30 kph. Then I was at a toll barrier, thinking that my vignette would get me through, but, no, I had to pay 8 euros toll, which meant removing the gloves and finding which pocket had the wallet. I pulled over after paying to get my gloves back on properly, and saw that there was a tunnel museum here, so I dismounted and had a look at its locked doors, seeing only a few photos through the entrance. So I took a few photos as was off again.

Riding through Lienz was odd. I had never seen it crowded with cars and pedestrians before. I think it must have been so busy because it was a Saturday. I filtered past lots of queues of traffic, and was not sure whether this was permitted in Austria, but this way I was soon out of the town and heading upwards and onwards. The road to Plöckenpasse was open and clear, with good runs of speed. I missed a right turn, because I was having such fun lining up the bends and setting up smooth accelerations, that I had to turn round and go back 2 km. This was the first batch of hairpins and I passed a car on the straight and got into the rhythm of accerating out of a bend, braking into the next one, lining up the entry, seeing the apex point, looking up and over my shoulder at the the line, and then accelerating hard out of it, braking into the next one. Each time I was getting the entries better, braking into the bend, rather than too early, which I had been doing, and getting the tires to bite before accelerating, as well as getting the widest line by going for the apex. Again and again, hairpin after hairpin, all the time getting higher up the mountain. The road straightened became a little less bendy until the old boundary crossing into Italy at the top of the pass. On the way down, the weather was better, it was warmer, and the bends sharper and mroe frequent. Many of these stretches had a half tunnel over them, with an open structure on the outside where the sunlight streamed in. Some were complete tunnels, and totally dark inside. After the brilliance of the sunshine it was unnerving to be plunged into darkness for a few seconds, then out into the light again.

After the excitement of the mountains, the roads through the foothills went from village to village, with fast stretches in between. Then I got to the motorway about 2 pm and stopped at the service area for my fruit and water, and a proper espresso - one euro. Glass of water to go with it, no messing around, no fuss. The Italians know what do with coffee! I texted Ranko to give him a new estimated arrival time of 16:00, sure I would make it before then.

The Italian motorway took me to the Slovenian border, an easy crossing now that they are in the EU. From the border, I headed for Kozina, and managed to avoid the highway, particularly because i had not bought the vignette that Slovenia now likes to sell to the tourists who are passing through. I found my way through the route, with only a couple of wrong turns. I could buy the maps for my satnav for this region, but they are about £100 for this region, and I figured it was not worth buying maps of the entire Balkans and Eastern Europe just to get through a bit of Slovenia to Buzet.

After Kozina, to Crni Kal, then to the border with Croatia, where they seemed to be asking for passports and IDs from cars in front. I took off my gloves and got me passport out, but them woman with the uniform blanked me and turned to talk to the guards. I waited a bit then she turned back and waved me through in a very disinterested manner. Clearly, they only talk to Slavs at this border. Off I went to head for Buzet.

The last run from Buzet to Motovun was easy and fast. These roads are very smooth, with some very straight stretches that are wide and clear with no side turnings. The two cars in front of me were gassing it, and try as I might, I could get nowhere near them. My clock indicated 150 mph, but the satnav had it as 140 mph, and that's the fastest I've been on this bike. By now, I had learned to get my head down at speed, and the weaving didn't happen. It might have helped that there were no crosswinds, either. I was slowing down well in advance of any bends or turnings, which is perhaps why I could not catch up with the cars, but they were really moving.

I made it to Motovun in the sunshine, and wound my way up the hill, on an atrociously surfaced road that is in dire need of rebuilding. The guy at the entrance to the town who turns back traffic from the cobbled streets waved me through with a smile. And I picked my way up the steep narrow streets, bumping over the cobbles, through the town gate to the lower square, which has tables both sides for the coffee bars, and there was Ranko who was getting me a large cold beer. All the tourists watched as I bounced to a halt next to the table, and settled down to a nice cold pint and a chat, and I presented him with a bottle of ultra-hot chilli sauce. For the first, time, I had arrived earlier than I'd given Ranko to expect, to I was quite pleased with having navigated through Slovenia and Croatia without the satnav to guide me. So, by way of celebration, we chatted and caught up with each other's news till well after midnight, with the help of a few beers, of course.

In all I had covered 1863 km (1158 miles) in 19 hrs and 24 minutes of moving time, 23 hours and 20 minutes of travel time including stops. Maximum speed was 225 kph (140 mph) and overall moving average 96 kph (60 mph). Now I need a rest for a few days before doing it all again on the way back...

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Reading, Berkshire, United Kingdom

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